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Jackson's Reflections

Here are a few more thoughts from Lawrence Jackson, executive vice president of Wal-Mart's People Division, from a conversation with Julie Cook Ramirez, author of this issue's cover story, "The Outsiders."

Wednesday, March 22, 2006
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Had HR been an ambition for you long-term or were you surprised to have landed there?

In some ways, it's a surprise and in other ways, it's not. Throughout my career, I spent the large portion of my career -- almost 18 years -- at PepsiCo. PepsiCo has an almost legendary HR system. Many of the HR heads across the country in Fortune 100 companies are ex-PepsiCo executives from HR.

As I was coming up as a young manager through that system, I really learned the value of human resources, leveraged it a lot personally, and it helped me understand how to get things done through other people. Because I understood that for me at least -- being able to get a team to move forward and get things done through others -- [that] no one can do everything and solve everything by themselves. This whole idea of 'how do you build and help people succeed' has always been at the core of whatever I've done, whether it's been manufacturing or general manager's job, what have you.

Wal-Mart has been facing some pretty significant HR challenges in recent months: class-action sex discrimination and wage lawsuits and escalating union-organizing activity, amid continued rapid growth. Why do you feel that you, someone without previous HR experience, is qualified to lead the HR organization, particularly now?  

There's no one that I know who's ever taken a job that has all the answers and is perfect, but in most jobs -- and HR is no different, especially at this company -- when you have a company of our size and our scale and dealing with the immense number of issues that you are dealing with, you need a couple of things, but the very first thing you need is a strong will and leadership and the ability to gather a team, make up a team, and move forward on whatever the issues or the agenda that you are trying to drive to help make the organization better -- better for associates, as well as for customers.

I look at an organizational design as a T. As you are coming up early in your career, you are really developing and demonstrating what I call functional skills. If you are in finance, you are showing that you know how to do finance. If you are in marketing, you are showing the capability of handling marketing analysis and advertising, but as you get further up in an organization, more senior in terms of the role and the skill of the responsibility you have, those technical skills become less important and the leadership skills become more and more.

Because you are leading huge organizations of people who have the technical skills and where there are gaps, you have the capability as a leader to go and supplement them, either through your own knowledge or through just resourcing it from within the organization or from outside the organization, whichever is best.

At a very senior level, I don't know that there's any one skill set that matters more than leadership, and leadership is defined as helping people be all they can be.

I understand you met with your predecessor, Coleman Peterson, prior to taking over your post. Tell me about that conversation and how he may have assisted you in your transition into HR?  

When I started to even think whether I wanted to pursue the opportunity to come to Wal-Mart, I gave Cole a call. I did not know him. I knew of him. We had a very close mutual friend. We talked on the phone a couple times, and it was really wonderful talking with him because he had such a grasp of the place and he was such a positive person. He's been extremely helpful since I've come. He and his wife, Peaches, did a wonderful job of helping my wife, Kim, and I feel welcome here, engaged us early in the first few months. Every time there was a nice event around town where we could be introduced, he did that. On an ongoing basis, we try to get together once a month or so and have lunch.

Were there specific questions you asked him that helped you determine whether to take the job?

There were definitely specific questions I asked him. When you're coming in from the outside, one of the things, you have a personal good feeling about the company or else you wouldn't be interested in coming, but what you don't know is, Are all your reads off? You can have these personal feelings that are warm and fuzzy, but is that really how people feel?

You are looking for someone who has some day-to-day experience who, quite frankly -- and Cole was in this unique situation -- doesn't have more or less skin in the game, that can be more frank with you and also is accessible to you in a world outside of whichever company you are involved with. I had a chance to speak with him about how serious the company was about change and the capability for someone like myself to come into an organization like this and be successful because it's been a tremendously successful company and most of the success has been developed from within.

How did you go about building relationships with the HR team, earning their trust, etc?

I don't know that I had a way to go about that. Cole and I are very different in style. Cole is the ultimate HR professional. He looks good; he dresses well. I grew up more or less in an urban setting, a little bit of a closet intellectual from the days in Cambridge, but I'm a little bit more 'what you see is what you get.'

My style, in many ways, some people will call refreshing. Others can be aggravated because I tend to tell you exactly how I feel, not in a way that's mean, at least as I interpret it, but it's very direct. The openness and the candor in which I operate, hopefully, leaves some believability, so the people who work with me and I work with them, we don't have to worry about any subtle, behind the scenes agendas because everything is right on the table.

The press release announcing your arrival stated that you would also serve as a strategic adviser to Wal-Mart's senior management team. Tell me about that facet of your duties and what it entails.  

This is a company that is very large and no one person can run it. Lee [Scott] is our leader and Rob [Walton] is the chairman of the board, but this company is so huge and so large that I think they would acknowledge that no one person can totally run this company.

So we have to be a collaborative team. Lee has a team, his direct reports, the six of us, and we generally like each other. That helps. That helps more than you can really believe in some cases. There's nothing that we don't use each other for sounding boards and it's not on HR things. It can be on acquisitions or business problems or even personal problems.

We help each other because we recognize that without all of us together, we can't really make any things happen in a company this big in a way that matters.

How would you describe your relationship with the rest of the C-suite and the board? Do you feel you have an enhanced credibility with them because of the path you took to your current position?

I don't know that I have enhanced credibility because of the path that I took. The best answer to that would come from the board. I can tell you that I, as well as all of our senior leadership team, work very closely with our board of directors. We have a very engaged board of directors. Rob Walton is very engaged. Our board is engaged in our business.

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Our meetings are very thorough. They have very good discussions. People feel free to bring up their POV. Our board members are our customers, too, in our stores. They have interactions and experiences that they are not shy at all about giving us that feedback. I think our relationship with our board is a solid one, but the premise is on performing as well.

Looking back at your first 14 months at Wal-Mart, how would you assess your performance? What particular initiatives would you deem as most critical to your long-term HR strategy for Wal-Mart?  

My personal style is one of never being satisfied. I never think I do as well as I need to do. I always think there's something else I could have done better or a situation I could have handled in a more effective way, someone I could have helped gain a little bit more of their potential than I was able to do. In that way, I'm a pretty tough grader. When I look at myself, I feel the same thing.

Early in my life, I was a consultant at McKinsey. One of the things you learn there and in business school is to be a problem-solver. The flip-side of that is you tend to look at everything from the problem perspective and forget about all the things that are working well because they are working well and don't need much attention.

My mind-set is always on the things that I've got to do, not the things that I have done -- or that we have done because I don't think by myself I have done very much of anything because we do things collectively here. We've made some progress on a lot of things, on our whole global talent management, how we develop and build senior leadership in this organization. We've done a very good job of building a top-flight team and giving them the experiences necessary so that they can take this company to the next level of performance.

We've also done a reasonable job at building diversity within our organization. This was happening well before I got here. The work that the HR teams along with the various leaders in our various business units have done a wonderful job of making our company relevant, both for the associate who works here as well as for the customer who we try to serve and act as the agent just outstanding.

Those are a couple of areas where you could hold us up to almost any company that I'm aware of and we would shine well.

Do you have any other thoughts that you would like to add?

Anyone in this role -- certainly myself -- is just a reflection of others who came before, as well as the associates who you are really trying to be their agent and help represent them well. In our organization, as large as it is, every day we have challenges because we are trying to be a global company, but we started off as a small company.

When you think of Wal-Mart, you think of it always as big and powerful, but I like to think of Wal-Mart in a different way. It's like the kid who grew up overnight. You go to bed and you're 12-years-old and five-feet-tall and you wake up the next morning and all of a sudden, you find yourself six-nine and 275.

The problem with that is you're big and intimidating in some cases, but the reality is that you are probably not coordinated yet because your mind, as well as the other functions, has to catch up with the size of your body.

In many ways, we are a very young company. We are $300 billion-plus in sales, but you can look back at the Ford Motor Co. or GE or any other large companies and you'll find out they have a history of 50, 60, 70, 80 years. We are nowhere near that. We are still growing into our own, getting our sea legs, so to speak.

With that size comes expectations, but we're also learning to manage all the things that we find ourselves involved in, probably well before any company would have been prepared to deal with them at this stage of corporate development.

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